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Elinor Lipman’s ‘Rachel to the Rescue’ is a rom-com about a Trump staffer. Do we care enough to giggle?

Has the timing of a comic novel ever been more delicate? In 2020, Elinor Lipman learned that her fizzy rom-com set in the bowels of the Trump administration would be coming out too late to be successful. Despite the author’s stellar track record cranking out quirky romantic comedies since 1987, U.S. publishers believed Americans would no longer be interested in books about the 45th president by the time they could get “Rachel to the Rescue” to print.

And if readers did want more Trump, they could hardly have caught up with all that had been on offer. Donald Trump’s presidency was a bonanza for the publishing industry, generating scores of biographies, memoirs and exposés; sendups in prose (Christopher Buckley’s “Make Russia Great Again,” Howard Jacobson’s “P---y,” Ayad Akhtar’s “Homeland Elegies”) and poetry (John Lithgow’s “Trumpty Dumpty Wanted a Crown,” Ken Waldman’s “Trump Sonnets Volumes 1 Through 7”); even children’s books such as Michael Ian Black’s “A Child’s First Book of Trump.”

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Bravely, a British publisher called Lightning Books decided to take its chances and managed to get Lipman’s book out before Election Day officially marked the beginning of the end.

But it turned out, at least according to Slate’s resident critic Laura Miller, that it was actually too early for Rachel’s rescue. Reading the British edition last November, Miller wrote: “Right now any comic narrative as gentle and toothless as this rom-com, set against the bleakness of the past four years, comes across as almost sociopathic in its obliviousness. Lipman’s American publishers were wrong: It’s not too late for ‘Rachel to the Rescue.’ It’s way, way too soon.”

It must have been the gentle toothlessness more than the comedy itself that troubled Miller, given all the satires mentioned above, plus weekly SNL routines, Sarah Cooper and so much more.

Now, it’s July 2021, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is betting that the time is finally right for a lightweight romp through the fields of MAGA. Soothed by six anodyne months of the Biden-Harris administration, we can once again enjoy silly Donald humor and Melania parody, as well as a pandemic romance complete with hand sanitizer and “personal protective equipment that my mother had sewn from a YouTube tutorial and a shower curtain.”

But only you, dear reader, can judge whether you will be able to enjoy this possibly sociopathic book. Perhaps a summary will help.

After the sudden death of the wealthy would-be memoirist she served as personal assistant, Rachel Naomi Klein moves to D.C. and lands a job in the White House Office of Presidential Correspondence. Her job is to tape back together the papers President Trump habitually rips up every day, so that they can be preserved according to regulation in the National Archives. But after just a few months on Team Scotch Tape, she commits the dreaded “Reply All” error, sending an email grousing about her job to the entire department instead of her best office friend.

Then, after being summarily canned, she is hit by a speeding vehicle on her way out the door! Lying in the hospital with broken ribs and a concussion, Rachel enjoys a few minutes of fame as the media speculates whether an administration critic getting run down, practically killed, outside the Eisenhower Executive Office Building could possibly be an innocent accident. BuzzFeed unearths the name of the driver — British optometrist Veronica Hyde-White. Then Rachel receives a phone call from a nervous whistleblower, a woman who informs her that Mrs. Hyde-White is Trump’s lover, hiding behind assiduous optometry to make frequent visits to the White House.

With this hot tip in hand, Rachel lands a position working with a muckraking writer named Kirby Champion, who plans to incorporate the details of the thickening scandal around her accident into his next book, working title “The Blight,” covering “the diseased presidency of Donald Trump.”

So . . . that’s the setup. Pretty mild, ’tis true. The highlight of this aspect of the book is Lipman’s portrayal of Melania Trump. When the first lady learns of what the Daily News headlines OPTOME-TRYST, she packs up and heads for New York by car, an escape covered mile by mile from the air a la O.J. Simpson’s white Bronco, stopping only in Delaware for a brief visit to the Biden Welcome Center.

Once she gets to the city, she holds a news conference. “Yes, she’d been the contractually obligated Good Wife who’d stomached the porn star, the Playboy Bunny, and the fourteen other accusers and plaintiffs. . . . Veronica Hyde-White was — translated from Melania’s kurba — ‘a whore too far.’ ” Lipman has great fun dressing Melania — seen on Fifth Avenue, for example, in black pants, a fur cape and a black baseball cap bearing the word “Stonewall.”

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Other aspects of the book are typical Lipman. The romance between the scions of Klein Wallpaper and Paint of New York and Varsity Wine and Spirits of Washington — Rachel and Alex — is fomented by Rachel’s lesbian housemates — lawyers at the Department of Justice — and proceeds with nary a glitch, at least until lockdown. Family, both biological and chosen, is a favorite theme of this author; here we are treated to Thanksgiving and Shabbat dinners cooked by Yasemin (“Think it’s okay if I found it under Ramadan entrees?” she asks of her chicken with apricots.) At one of them, the honored guest is Ivanka Trump’s Hebrew teacher, Shoshana Gottlieb, whose “star mitzvah” coaching is so renowned, parents sign up their kids in kindergarten.

Some aspects of the book are pretty lame, most having to do with writer Kirby Champion, who is just too much of a goofball, but this probably won’t wreck the book for you if indeed you are ready for it. Aw, get over it, you’ll be thinking about this too early/too late controversy . . . which means that you probably are getting there yourself. As in, over it. What a nice feeling.

Marion Winik, a professor at the University of Baltimore, is the author of numerous books, including “First Comes Love,” “The Lunch-Box Chronicles” and, most recently, “The Big Book of the Dead.”

Rachel to the Rescue

By Elinor Lipman

Mariner. 304 pp. Paperback, $15.99

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